During the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What does it mean to be poor in spirit?
A quick answer to that question, as most scholars have understood it, is that we acknowledge we’re spiritually bankrupt. As Tim Keller writes in his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just:
“It means to see that you are deeply in debt before God, and you have no ability to even begin to redeem yourself. God’s free generosity to you, at infinite cost to him, was the only thing that saved you.”
However, if you compare Luke’s version in Luke 6:20, Jesus merely says “Blessed are the poor.” This seems to be more hard-hitting and direct, and less metaphorical. Jesus even goes further and says “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” in verse 24.
For us to understand what it means to be poor in spirit, we need to understand what it means to be poor.
What does it mean to be poor?
Tim Keller explains that poverty is an economic condition. It is being with little or no resources that the world values. Having nothing of value refers not only to money but also to talents or skills. All of these things are resources or skills the world values. Without them, the world will not give you any consideration since you have nothing to offer it.
As a result, the people of God must respond with mercy to the economic condition of being without the things the world values.
Deuteronomy 15:7 says:
7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.
On the other hand, poverty is also a social condition. It’s not just having little or nothing of value. Whatever little you do have is taken away from them. We see this everywhere in the world. The poor are frequently exploited and oppressed. As Proverbs 13:23 “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”
Because poverty is also a social condition, as Christians we must respond to it with justice. As Deuteronomy 10:17 says:
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.
If we can understand what poverty means, how does that help us become poor in spirit?
Read on below.
Being poor in spirit rather than middle class in spirit
Keller explains that many of us are middle class. This kind of “middle-class spirit” that he describes, is something we need to get rid of in order to receive the gospel. Indeed, “religion” is something that is ultimately middle class in nature. It appeals to those who are able, and to those who think that if they work hard enough, they can achieve things by themselves.
The religious person tries hard throughout life and lives in a way that suggests they can do things on their own. They can live nobly and give to the poor Even our good deeds are done to feel superior to other people and to get leverage over God. There is almost a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency. Much of this is done because they believe it makes them righteous in some way.
“What if, however, you aren’t poor in spirit? That would mean you don’t believe you are so sinful, morally bankrupt, and lost that only free grace can possibly save you. You may find the classic Christian doctrines about humanity’s deep sin and lostness to be too harsh. On the contrary, you believe that God owes you some things—he ought to answer your prayers and to bless you for the many good things you’ve done. Even though the Bible doesn’t use the term, by inference we can say that you are “middle-class in spirit.” You feel that you’ve earned a certain standing with God through your hard work. You also may believe… that the success and the resources you have are primarily due to your own industry and energy.”
In several places in the gospels, Jesus indicates that the gospel is preached to the poor. For example, in Luke 4:18, He says: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Similarly, in Luke 7:18-35, when John the Baptist sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus gives them a message to take back to him in verse 22. He says:
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Now, although Jesus does speak to everyone, Tim Keller suggests that it is only the poor who actually hear the gospel and receive it. What does that mean? Is he suggesting that no rich person can enter the kingdom of God?
Well, Jesus does say in Luke 18:24-25
24 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
But Jesus is hinting at something deeper than whether you have material wealth or not.
Jesus quoted the second half of the Ten Commandments in Luke 18:20. These were all the ones concerned with loving one’s neighbour. The rich man believed that he had observed all of God’s commandments since he was a child. However, Jesus revealed the state of the man’s heart when He asked him to go and sell everything he had to the poor and then follow Him.
The rich man was unable to do this, showing that in fact he didn’t really love his neighbour at all, and ultimately, that he didn’t love God. The state of the rich man’s heart showed that he was in fact not poor in spirit. Instead, he was self-sufficient and believed that he could keep all the commandments on his own. As such, he could not receive the Kingdom of God.
What Does Jesus Mean By “Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit?”
Keller observes that in Luke 6:20, it says “looking at his disciples, he said “blessed are you who are poor”. However, not all of the disciples were materially poor as such. One of the disciples was Levi, also known as Matthew. He was a tax collector and would’ve been considered well off.
Being poor in spirit goes beyond being simply being materially poor. However, the two are linked. Tim Keller suggests that the same two characteristics of material poverty are the same two characteristics of spiritual poverty. Without these, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.
What are these?
Well, material poverty is having little or no resources of value. And it’s also having what little resources or choices you do have taken away from you.
When we’re poor in spirit, we also realise that we have absolutely nothing of value. We also have no power or choices.
However, Isaiah 64:6 tells us that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Think about that for a minute. Even our best efforts are like the soiled and dishevelled clothing you might find on a homeless person.
Because we are in this completely helpless state, we need to depend completely on the salvation of Jesus Christ and his grace. Therefore, to be blessed as the poor, or the poor in spirit, means we’re in that helpless state where we are able to receive Jesus and enter the Kingdom of God.
The gospel message is that no-one is righteous before God. There is only one hope for us – Jesus Christ. To be a Christian, and to enter into the kingdom of God, we have to be poor in spirit. We can’t be self-sufficient and believe we can get by on our own merits or hard work. It is only when we realise that we, like the poor, have nothing of value before God, then we can receive the gospel and be saved.
When we become poor, we also give up all of our power and choices to follow Jesus. To become spiritually poor is to acknowledge that we owe God everything, not that He owes us.
Identifying with the poor
In Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself, the authors write that only when we acknowledge our mutual brokenness with the poor are we able to truly help them. If we place ourselves in a position of superiority, we’re likely to do more harm than good. We can think too highly of ourselves as a kind of “rich saviour” who simply swoops in to help the poor. All the while, we remain detached and indifferent from their actual need.
As Corbett and Fikkert put it, it can give us a “god complex”. We effectively using the poor as a means to boost our own sense of self worth that we’re doing something worthwhile.
Consequently, we can end up insensitive to some of the underlying causes of poverty and can make the situation worse. We can also look down upon them condescendingly, believing they’re not trying hard enough or working quickly enough. Instead of giving them a hand, we simply give them a hand-out.
Bryant Myers writes in his book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, that sin has affected all of our relationships in some way. Our relationships with God, ourselves, with others and with creation. He suggests that poverty is a result of broken relationships with each of these categories. Poverty is an absence of shalom in every sense of the word that affects all of these relationships.
Some of the ways that the poor can feel broken is by developing a sense of inferiority, poor self image and a feeling of complete helplessness. This can prevent them from taking any kind of effective action because they’re paralysed by their situation. As such, they feel completely trapped and stuck in their poverty.
Have you ever felt this way in your life? I know I have.
Now I haven’t personally experienced homelessness or even the same kind of poverty that people in Third World countries have endured. However, I have experienced long periods of unemployment or where I was only earning a low income. I can tell you that I also felt paralysed and helpless. It can shake your confidence and leave you feeling trapped. It is difficult being in a long period of wilderness. I’ve written about here in more detail with tips on how to survive a wilderness period.
One thing it has helped me with however, is to identify more closely with the poor. It has taught me to become poor in spirit and acknowledge that mutual brokenness. As Tim Keller writes:
“When Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. Their hearts must go out to him or her without an ounce of superiority or indifference.”
When we become poor in spirit, we realise that we are exactly the same as them. There is ultimately no difference, because we realise that except for the grace of God, that could easily have been us.
On the other hand, when we are still middle class in spirit, we can see ourselves as superior to the poor and hold ourselves apart. This makes us less likely to be spurred on to do something about poverty. As Keller writes:
“My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need.”
When we identify with the poor, this makes us more aware of their need. We have been there ourselves, or we can see the world through their eyes. We can no longer be indifferent to them, because then we are not truly loving our neighbour as ourselves.
Becoming poor in spirit is something that all Christians should be. If you feel that your heart has grown hard towards the poor, then you need to ask yourself whether you’ve become middle-class in spirit. Have you become self-sufficient and relying on your own righteousness?
Do you find yourself identifying with the poor and how have you helped those in need?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.